It was only two years earlier, in July 1778, that the N.H. Gazette of Portsmouth had reported: “The Success of Inoculation in this place and neighbouring towns is almost incredible, upwards of 1100 persons of all ages and constitutions have been inoculated by the physicians of this town within the short space of three months, and only two unfavourable circumstances have happened...” What makes the townfolks’ prevailing attitude surprising (to me, anyway) is that Amherst was the county seat, inland certainly but not exactly the boondocks, with a regular influx of outsiders. But those inhabitants of Amherst who believed that inoculation was less risky than taking the chance of random exposure to small-pox, and had the time and the money for boarding at an inoculation hospital, had had years of opportunity out-of-town not so far away.
Inoculation Trouble in 1792
In 1792, the Selectmen called a special town meeting in October, in response to a petition “to know the minds of the inhabitants of said Town of Amherst concerning providing a pest house to accommodate persons that have or may have the small-pox.” The warrant articles were:
(1) “To see if the Town will direct or give their consent or appoint by committee or any other way that they shall think best that a suitable house or houses may be erected or hired for the use and purpose of such persons as may have taken or shall take the small-pox either the natural way or by inoculation, for the safety and benefit of the inhabitants of said Town of Amherst”;
(2) “and if thought best to choose a committee to see that such house or houses be in such place or places and under such regulations as shall be for the safety and benefit of the Town and that no cost arise to the Town of Amherst”;
(3) “to see of the Town will prosecute Robert Fletcher Esq. and others whom it is presumed has brought the small-pox into town by inoculation without the consent of the Town and if thought best, to choose a committee for that purpose.” [Talk about public shaming!]
At that October special meeting, the citizenry “voted Not to permit a hospital or pest house for the accommodation of the small-pox in the Town of Amherst.” (No further information in the record.) Then meeting was adjourned to Nov. 1792, when the Town “voted to choose a committee to examine into the conduct of Robert Fletcher Esq. and others in bringing the small pox into the town by inoculation and to prevent others doing the same if in their powers and report to the Town of their doings the next town meeting.” Those chosen for the committee were: Daniel Campbell, Deacon Samuel Wilkins, Samuel Dana, Esq. (moderator of this town meeting), Nathan Kendall, and Joshua Lovejoy (Town Clerk). (Amherst Town Records Vol. 2, page 19.) In March 1793 at the regular annual town meeting (on its second day), the committee chosen to inquire into the conduct of those who brought the small-pox into Amherst gave their report. They were “of the opinion that Robert Fletcher and others who had the small-pox in this town the fall past were highly reprehensible.” “But,” the committee said, “when we consider their peculiar suffering, that one sorrowful instance of mortality happened among them, and others
were severely visited with the disorder, besides the great[er] expense than usual – we think it would be adding affliction to the afflicted if they should be further noticed in the matter and therefore recommend to the Town to pass over the offense without any further marks of resentment than to let others know that a similar error will not be passed with the like lenity.” (Amherst Town Records Vol. 2, p. 26.)
Robert Fletcher (3d, 1762-1809) was a local businessman, who in Dec. 1783 had bought the house now standing at 14 Middle Street on its original site, the Brick School lot. He had been commissioned Justice of the Peace in 1790, the same year as Samuel Dana, a lawyer, was; Joshua Atherton, a lawyer, was made JP the following year, and Daniel Campbell in 1792. In Feb. 1791, Fletcher was one of the founders of the Aurean Academy along with his fellow JPs and committee members Kendall and Wilkins et al. In sum, a respectable citizen. An 18-month-old daughter of Robert Fletcher died of the small-pox in Nov. 1792. Fletcher had moved to Boston by 1806 when he lost his former Amherst homestead (dwelling house, office and cider mill on 2 acres) and Nashua real estate (280 acres, store, blacksmith shop) in a court suit by creditors. Historian Secomb was unusually blunt and critical in his assessment of him: “He was an active business man in Amherst, Dunstable [now Nashua], and other places. … In his business enterprises he seems to have been particularly unfortunate. However successful they were at first, they usually terminated in failure. … He terminated his career by shooting himself at Montreal [where a lumber business had failed].” (The newspapers that reported his death did not mention the shooting.)
Despite reported successes with inoculation more than a decade earlier, in Aug 1792 there was a limited outbreak of small-pox in Boston that had the residents in a tizzy: a huge crowd turned out at the special town meeting by petition (N.H. Gazette, 16 Aug. 1792). And in New Hampshire, around the time of the ambiguous and perplexing Amherst incident: “The small-pox is daily breaking out in some part or other of this state …” (N.H. Spy, Portsmouth, 1 Dec 1792.)
A mere four years later: the monumental discovery (in England) of “vaccination” whereby humans could be infected with the non-fatal cow-pox to prevent the often-deadly small-pox.
Vaccine expert Dr. Matthias Spalding (1769-1865) settled in Amherst in 1806. Another local source for vaccines was Dr. Ambrose Seaton, who had grown up in Amherst living on Old Manchester Road; received a Degree of Doctor of Medicine from Dartmouth College in 1825; and was appointed Surgeon’s mate for 5th Regiment of N.H. Militia in 1827. In 1828-1830, he ran a drug store in Amherst Village. Ambrose Seaton, Druggist and Apothecary, advertised fresh supply of medicines, and “also a supply of fresh and pure VACCINE VIRUS, and would be happy to inoculate all those, who would be exempt from the danger of a dangerous disease.” (Farmers’ Cabinet, 1 March 1828.) He left town and died in Kentucky in 1866 aged 61.
Free Vaccinations for All in 1840
The New Hampshire Legislature on 27 June 1835 passed an act for the prevention of the
small-pox, with the objective of getting every person vaccinated at the expense of their town. It took Amherst four-and-a-half years to officially adopt it.
Perhaps the citizens of Amherst were finally induced to act by reports from Boston. For the year 1839, the Boston Medical Association reported that there were 248 cases of small-pox in Boston known to physicians out of an estimated population of 80,000: 145 cases of varioloid or slight disease; 52 cased of small-pox or severe disease but not fatal; 22 fatal cases of small-pox; and 29 cases of character not stated. (Farmers’ Cabinet, 20 Dec. 1839.) But just a few months later, the Boston Herald reported that “within a few months past, nearly 100 persons have died in [Boston] of small-pox, and that about 1000 have had the disease.” (Farmers’ Cabinet, 21 Feb. 1840.)
Amherst held a special town meeting in January 1840, which (Amherst Town Records Vol. 3. p. 225-226):
“Resolved that the Selectmen employ an agent or agents to vaccinate as soon as may be all the inhabitants of the town who have not had the kine pox or small pox and to revaccinate all those inhabitants who may wish and where it will give in their opinion greater security against the small pox; that the agent(s) keep a list of persons they vaccinate and the time when and number of visits made to each patient and report the same in writing to the Board of Selectmen … which report the Selectmen shall lay before the Town at the meeting next after said report shall be made.”
“Resolved that after the performance of the above services the Selectmen be authorized to pay the Agent or Agents a sum not exceeding 10 cents for each person vaccinated.”
The town report for the year ending March 1841 (the Town’s first typeset annual report) shows that three physicians were paid for vaccinations: to Amory Gale, $19.50; to Matthias Spalding, $30.92; and to F. P. Fitch, $40.67, for a total of $91.04. (During the same reporting year, Amherst physicians were paid $43.50 for doctoring town paupers.) According to the 1840 census, the total population of Amherst was 1,565.
Dr. Amory Gale lived and practiced medicine in Amherst from 1834-1839 at 13 Church Street in the Village. His practice was succeeded by Dr. Francis P. Fitch (1806-1874) in October 1839 in the same house until 1865. The fact that Dr. Gale received compensation for vaccinations suggests that the Selectmen had quietly implemented free vaccinations at least a year before the matter was voted on at town meeting.
The Amherst Town Records are multi-year oversized hand-written leather-bound volumes in which successive Town Clerks recorded the minutes/votes of Town Meetings and other decisions taken by the Selectmen, like the laying-out of roads, starting in 1760. The early volumes are on microfilm, viewable at Amherst Town Library. For most of the quoted passages, I standardized the spelling for readability. I found no list of vaccinated persons in the Town Hall vault and it was not recorded in the official records volume.
Katrina Holman welcomes comments to HistoricAmherstNH@juno.com.